It was a stupid, stupid thing to do. Stupid, stupid…
There was no reason to bring him, and a thousand not to. He was annoying. He was weak, not cut out for fighting. He was just trying to get into my pants.
And most of all, he couldn’t know about our powers.
“So what’s your favorite anime?” Ling asked nonchalantly.
Flynn shrugged. “Hard to say. I liked Gundam for a while, but its been going on for so long, everything gets repeated eventually. Though there was that one about the guy with the hypnotic eye and giant robots…can’t remember the name.”
But why not? I mean, he had promised not to speak a word of this, and he seemed trustworthy enough…
No he wasn’t. That was stupid. He wasn’t trustworthy or nice or sweet or kind. My brain was just plastering delusions onto him, since he was the first person to ever actually show any interest in me. I was projecting my desires for Derek onto a more viable subject, nothing more.
Ling was eying me warily, but didn’t seem all that perturbed by Flynn’s presence. That should have made me feel more confident, but she probably assumed I knew something she didn’t, something that made him seem more trustworthy.
But I didn’t! I had only known him for four days!
Ling turned her attention back to the swordsman. “That sounds familiar, but I can’t remember it either. Is it shounen?”
He frowned. “Hard to say. It’s one of those genre-busters.”
“Shounen is a demographic category, not a genre,” the little Chinese girl corrected. “Who was it marketed towards?”
He thought for a moment. “Boys, I guess.”
“Then it’s shounen.”
“Hey Akane, Ling. Who’s this?”
I looked up; we had reached the mouth of the alley Derek’s text had directed me to without even noticing. It was really close to my class, still within campus, which was one of the reasons Derek had called me. If it was outside campus, it would be both too far away and not enough of an emergency to pull me out. We had gotten the mission earlier, but had delayed it because of my class. Apparently, now the monsters were doing enough damage to actually constitute a real problem.
Derek stood, hands on his hips and a smile on his face, in front of the alley, while Adam leaned against the side of the building. Derek was the one who had spoken.
“Wait, don’t tell me…” he furrowed his brow, considering my classmate. “You’re…Neil, right?”
He flinched. “Flynn Neilson, actually. Neil was my father,” Flynn corrected, shaking his hand. “You saved my life once.”
“Right, I think I remember. Crabswarm?”
Derek clicked his fingers in frustration. “I knew it was some kind of swarm. So what brings you around here? On your way home?”
This was why everyone loved him. Saving people was one thing, but the fact that he honestly, truly remembered them, treated them as people rather than victims to make him look better…this was it. People would die for him, I think. Other than me, of course. I don’t count.
“Actually,” Flynn chirped a little bit too excitedly, “Akane invited me on the hunt.”
Derek blinked. “Really?” He turned to me. “You sure?”
I knew what he was asking. I could have signaled to him, got him to find an excuse to send my classmate away. There were a thousand good reasons, not even considering our secret.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I just nodded. Derek paused for a moment, then shrugged.
“Good enough for me. You know how to use that sword, Flynn?”
Flynn had a sword as well, a bit higher quality than mine. He already had it out of its case, same as I did, and had it belted onto his waist, again mirroring me. He really was a pretty good fighter. Maybe if he was actually being serious, he’d be able to be useful.
“Second best in the class,” he affirmed.
“All right,” Derek said, clapping his hands together. Adam stepped away from the wall and unbuckled the holster on his pistol, but didn’t draw it yet. “Laura got dragged to a shopping trip with Lizzy, but that’s fine. It’s just an alley crawler. Difficult, but simple enough. Adam, you’re on point. Akane, Flynn, second position. Ling, you’re on rearguard.”
Everyone nodded, and arranged themselves as ordered, though Ling grumbled a little. Adam had his pistol ready, though I didn’t see his other guns. I guess it would be enough in this case.
We inched into the alley slowly, careful not to make more sound than necessary. This was a deep one, what the crawlers like, and it twisted around a few times until I wasn’t completely sure where we were. The nest of buildings wasn’t a maze; there was only one choice at each turn. But it was still disorienting.
At least the alley was wide. The brick walls were covered with smelly crawler slime, which you don’t want to touch unless there’s absolutely no other choice.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Flynn whispered to me. “Going after a crawler with guns, I mean.” He frowned. “Ling and Derek aren’t even armed.”
He was too close. I could feel his breath on his face, and my heart beat a little faster.
I took a step away from him, and he didn’t pursue. “Watch,” I said simply. He blinked, but shrugged.
He’d understand soon enough.
It took about ten minutes from entering the alley to finally find the crawler, but we never let our guards down. Still, it was pretty surprising when we turned the corner and it was just there.
It looked like nothing so much as a giant earthworm—which, basically, it was. Luckily, worms were never designed to be much bigger than your pinkie, so crawlers rarely survive long. They can do a lot of damage in the meantime though, which is why monster slayers occasionally get called in.
But this one was huge.
It was as wide as the alley—ten feet, maybe a little more—and just as tall. I couldn’t even see the other end; it was curved around the far corner, and probably another besides. It just crawled slowly away from us, the slime it had already spread on the walls helping it along. It hadn’t quite noticed us yet, but it would soon.
Adam stumbled back, blatant surprise on his face. “I thought we were after a rat!”
Derek cursed. “Silver and gold–That’s why you left your other guns behind?”
The great beast rumbled and slowed to a stop. Then it started creeping towards us, trying to find the source of the vibrations.
“Adam, to the back,” Derek spat. “This is way bigger than I thought. We might not have the firepower to take it out.”
Normally, crawlers were only about a foot wide and maybe twenty long. Big and dangerous, no question, but swords took care of them pretty easily. I didn’t even know where to start with this thing.
“Ling, get ready. Akane…” Derek paused. “Just cut the damn thing.”
I did as I was bid, rushing forward with sword drawn.
The crawler hadn’t quite noticed us, but it edged in my direction as my footfalls sounded on the concrete. Before it had a chance to try and take a bite out of me, I slashed it’s ‘face’ with an upward cut.
It wasn’t deep, by any means. An ordinary crawler’s skin is tough to cut, like animal hide, and it was clear from the amount of resistance that it only grew tougher with size and age.
Regardless, clear blood began to flow from the wound, and a low, rumbling moan echoed through the alley. The crawler opened its mouth and lunged forward, hoping to snatch me up before I could attack again.
I activated my power, slowing down time by about ten percent. I was getting better at controlling it; normally I just went all out and drained my reservoir in seconds.
But ten percent was more than enough with my own reflexes, enhanced by the package. I backed up to Flynn, momentarily out of reach of the crawler.
My classmate glanced at me. “Did you just—”
Before he could finish, the worm lunged again, this time at him.
Getting in the way of a normal crawler is a bad idea. Jumping in front of this one would be suicide.
I was thinking about it.
Derek, thankfully, was better suited for this than me, and conjured a strong glowing blue shield in front of Flynn. The worm bounced off it, confused, its mournful moan changing tune.
Flynn stumbled back, his jaw nearly falling off. “That’s…you’re…”
“Ling!” Derek cried. “Wall, under the worm!”
She obeyed with a grunt of effort, planting her feet solidly and thrusting up with her arms, as if lifting a great weight. In response, the crawler’s head got flung up ten feet as a large mound of concrete erupted out from under it.
The creature wouldn’t be distracted for long. I saw my cue, and activated my speed, this time at about half capacity.
It was strange. When I was using my power, everything seemed easier. I guess it made sense that my sword would cut easier, but why could I jump higher? Was I moving too fast for gravity somehow? That didn’t actually make sense, but that was what happened. I made a mental note to ask Laura about it.
I jumped at the left wall, planting my foot on the brick. Before I had a chance to fall, I jumped to the other side of the alley, higher up, and repeated the process. The third jump landed me on the creature’s head, such as it was.
I let my speed fade, and before the worm could notice my presence and try to buck me off, plunged my sword down into it’s head.
The crawler screamed, a deep, undulating sound. It wasn’t dead yet, not by a long shot, but it was definitely hurt. I leaped back to the ground without trouble, just as the worm started thrashing, trying to throw off the rider that was no longer there.
Flynn, it seemed had recovered, and rushed forward. He stabbed upward, at the worm’s underbelly, eliciting another scream of pain. Although he got covered in clear, smelly blood, Ling’s mound of concrete kept him mostly safe from being crushed. The crawler’s attempts to squash him just kept putting it in his reach.
I heard gunshots and saw spurts of blood appear on the creature; Adam, doing all that he could. Well, it wasn’t much against something of this size, but that was all right. If nothing else, it would teach him not to forget his bigger guns. With the Saint George, this would be over already.
Eventually, the worm summoned the brainpower to retreat, pulling beyond Ling’s mound and out of reach. The mound sunk back into the alley—Ling’s doing, no doubt—though it didn’t get perfectly flat, and we followed the fleeing creature quickly. I avoided using my power; my reservoir was still low, and that was no time to be charging in.
The crawler moved faster than we could chase it, but it was leaving a long smear of clear blood, so we followed it easily. Of course, there seemed to be only one way for it to go, but at least we didn’t have to worry about losing it if it found a way to escape.
Such as by carving a path through a building. Which it was doing right now, its tail end disappearing out of sight.
Derek cursed behind me. I could see the problem. Hopefully our employer had thought to empty these ‘scrapers, but he might not have. And either way, there was going to be a lot of damage. These were just lecture halls, so there wouldn’t be too much expensive equipment, but the cost of the stadium chairs they like to use here adds up very quickly. We ducked past the shattered door—the worm had selected the weakest point instinctively—and into a white corridor.
It seemed to be abandoned, which was good, and the trail remained clear. We followed it for a few turns until it disappeared into a room. Another lecture hall, a history one, if the plaque outside was anything to go by. We piled inside quickly, trying and failing to keep a formation. The others just didn’t have as much experience as Derek and I.
Like I thought, it was arranged like a small stadium, with seats for maybe a hundred students, tiered. Unlike a real stadium, it wasn’t circular; the room was rectangular, with the lecture pit at one end. And in that pit, filled with what appeared to be sewage from some shattered pipes, was the crawler we had been fighting.
As well as another one.
It was the same size as the first—ten feet wide, and perhaps two hundred long, coiled up at the bottom of the classroom. It was uninjured, as might be expected, and I’d probably call it the mate of the first one if I knew anything about crawler anatomy. Earthworms were asexual, but what about these things?
Once Flynn spotted them, he cursed vehemently, and the others weren’t far behind. Derek, however, just frowned.
“Akane,” he said slowly. “About those grenades my mom got me last Christmas…”
“At you house,” I whispered. “On your dresser.”
He sighed and put his hand against his face. If they were at the dorms, I could have fetched them. It wouldn’t have taken ten minutes. But his house was twenty miles away; the crawlers would cause way too much damage, and might even get away before then.
“Well,” he muttered tiredly. “We’ll just have to do this like before. Bleed them slowly. Ling and I will keep them off you two,” he nodded at me and Flynn. “and Adam will have the axe as a last line of defense.”
I glanced at Adam; he had grabbed a big red fire axe when I wasn’t looking. His pistol was probably nearly out of ammo.
“Start with the wounded one,” Ling advised. I resisted rolling my eyes. That was the obvious tactic. It was already moving slower than the fresh one, so hopefully it was near death. Again, earthworms never evolved to be this big, so they’re a bit easier to kill, proportionately speaking.
The smell got worse as we started forward. The dying crawler was bad enough, but the sewage line may as well have reached up and punched me in the gut. I tied one of the handkerchiefs I carry around my face as a crude mask; it helped a bit. I handed another to Flynn, and he followed my example. But in the process, he was distracted, and accidentally kicked one of the loose stadium seats. It bounced down a few steps before stopping.
The worms turned in our direction.
“Now,” I hissed.
I zipped forward at twenty percent, fast enough to take the lead but still conserve my power. I jumped from about ten feet from the pit, at the same height as the worms. I landed on the wounded one without difficulty, using my sword to secure my place.
I think the crawler screamed; it was hard to tell, with my ability distorting sound. I pulled my blade free from the long gash I had created and immediately plunged it in again, creating another deep wound. It seemed easier to cut when using my power, but at least that made more sense than my improved jumping ability.
I let my ability fade before my reservoir emptied completely, in case I needed to make a quick getaway. Flynn reached the worm moments later, and since he wasn’t able to match my jumps, just stabbed it in the roof of the mouth. It screamed even louder, and he got splattered with bits and pieces of whatever it was eating, blown from the force of its cries. Considering the sewage line, I made a mental note to remember that we all needed showers after this.
The second crawler tried to lunge at me, either protecting its mate or just aiming at a source of heat and vibrations, but a big chunk of concrete struck it in the head. I glanced back at the entrance and saw Ling picking up another piece of the floor as though it was mud, shaping it in her hands.
But still, she shouldn’t be able to throw it that far. Did that mean her ability was really telekinesis, just limited to rock and stone for some reason?
It wasn’t important. We could do more tests later, when Laura was around. For now, we had monsters to slay.
The worm I was riding tried to swallow Flynn, its tiny brain finally realizing the easy way to stop him from hurting it. I stabbed it’s ‘face,’ distracting it and causing it to rear up in pain. Flynn dodged to the side of the creature, on the opposite side as the other one, and started slashing its flank. The beast screamed again, longer and louder than before.
It finally began to slow, its dozens of wounds proving too much for it. I didn’t bother waiting for it to die; I activated my speed at full blast and jumped onto the other one. It was a risk, but we simply weren’t prepared for this. We didn’t have the luxury of going by the book. If the fresh worm didn’t get injured quickly, it would destroy us.
Almost to prove my point, before I even landed the uninjured crawler surged up the tiers, aiming for Ling. Of course, it couldn’t know that she could mold the concrete into a wall of stone, which she did without hesitation. The beast slammed into it at full force, letting out a keening cry of pain.
My reservoir was empty by this point, though filling; it drained way too quickly at full blast. I had to plunge my sword into the monster’s hide just to stay on, never mind actually do any real damage.
The worm slithered around the wall quickly; it wasn’t very wide. By that time, though, Flynn had caught up with us, and cut a wide wound in it’s side. Adam joined in with his pilfered axe, though I was a bit worried, since all his combat experience was at range. I wasn’t sure he had the instincts to survive melee.
It quickly became moot; the beast fled away, gushing clear and nauseating blood, with me still stuck on top. It seemed to be heading for the exit.
Derek summoned a barrier, blocking the way. The worm screamed in pain as it bashed it’s head again, and when it tried to dodge around, he summoned another. And another and another. Every avenue of escape it had was cut off. It finally paused, its tiny brain not sure what to do.
That was my chance. I ripped out my sword, activated my speed, and started cutting huge chunks out of its back.
The creature screamed, but its cries were cut off as Derek—wielding Adam’s axe—split it’s head in two with a massive overhead strike, getting completely drenched in viscous fluid in the process.
I don’t think that would have done much if the crawler was as robust as the earthworm it was based on; they can survive being cut in half, after all. But scaling a creature up that much does more than just leave you with a bigger monster—they can’t deal with the increased demands of the larger body.
So, bleeding from dozens of minor wounds and a few much bigger ones, the alley crawler finally went still.
I sighed deeply with relief and slid off it’s back. Derek caught me and stopped himself just before pulling me close.
No. It wasn’t Derek. It was Flynn. Not Derek. Not.
“Are you all right?” he asked, looking into my eyes as though searching for something. He did seem genuinely concerned, but how much of that could I really trust?
“I called MC,” Derek said a few feet away as he flipped his phone closed. “Our employer is outside.” He grimaced. “Let’s have a chat with him, shall we?”
It turned out that ‘outside,’ in this case, meant about ten feet from the door to the lecture hall. He had apparently been informed where we were.
He was a teacher, that much was obvious, from the way he held himself to the pad under his arm, not to mention his understated suit and tie. He was an older man, maybe sixty—positively ancient in Domina—and balding on the top. He was a little bit portly, but not overly so.
“Thank you very much, Mister Huntsman.” He smiled, though there was a hint of strain at the edge of it. “Of course, normally we’d take the property damage out of your pay, but I understand that you prevented far worse.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a hundred dollar bill. “Here you are, as agreed on.”
Derek glared at the proffered cash, then met the old man’s gaze. “Multiply that by twenty-five.”
I thought the man would have a heart attack right then and there. “Twenty-five? Are you completely insane? A simple alley crawler—”
“Mister Vere,” Derek interrupted, “what do you know about alley crawlers?”
Our employer stood up a little straighter. “Quite a bit. I teach monster anatomy, you know.” The cadence of his voice changed, and I had a feeling he was switching to ‘lecture mode.’ “They are one of the more common types of monster, although they cannot breed. The fey enjoy seeding them through the sewers, and they generally only last a few months before their bodies simply break down.”
“How big are they, Mister Vere?”
The teacher blinked. “A foot wide, twenty long. Why?”
Without a word, Derek led him into the ruined classroom, letting him see the destruction and the two dead two hundred foot-long worms.
It was almost worth the entire fight just to see his reaction. He stumbled back from the scene, tripping over broken seats and trying to run from the smell. It was worse than before; the blood had mixed with the waste from the broken sewage line in a smell that can only be called unholy. Derek gripped him tightly with one hand, trapping him as surely as if he had put him in a headlock.
“As you can see,” Derek said calmly. “These worms are about ten times the size of normal. So the reward should be multiplied by ten as well. And, of course, there are two, so the reward should be increased proportionately.” He glared daggers at the cowering man in his grip. “And since you sent me and mine into an extremely dangerous situation with false intelligence, I’m tacking on an extra five.” He leaned in close, terrifying the old bastard even more, and whispered dangerously. “This is me being merciful, Vere. I could ask for fifty and your head on a platter.”
The teacher looked like he may have that heart attack after all. “But…but she said that the second was just backup! That there was no way both would survive!”
Derek’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Explain.”
Vere swallowed and glanced at the rest of us, perhaps wondering if he could escape if he managed to break Derek’s iron grip.
He started talking.
“We—the school board, I mean—bought them from the Queen of Eternal Silver last year.” Seeing the looks on our faces, he hurried to continue. “That’s the court of Day’s Southern Summer.”
There were thirty-two fey courts, split between the four seasons, the four directions, and then Night and Day. Each court had three members, a Maiden, a Matron and a Crone—the Princess, the Queen, and the Queen-Mother. Obviously, that should have meant that there were ninety-six fey, but with their homunculi, it was impossible to know for sure. There could have been more, less…no one could tell. Not that it mattered.
“Why bother?” Derek demanded. “You had to know dealing with fey was stupid.”
The old man flinched from his tone. “Well, yes. But you see, AU was a bit poorly constructed. The school itself is fine, but the sewage system was…not very well thought out.” He shrugged awkwardly. “We needed the worms to handle the overflow.”
“But…” I started, but stopped as everyone turned to me.
Flynn seemed to figure out what I meant, and finished for me. “But how did they get to the surface?”
Vere licked his lips nervously. “Well…you see, crawlers usually end up above ground for a variety of reasons.” He seemed a bit more sure of himself, now that he was back in lecture mode. “Sometimes the fey release them, but mostly its because they find a manhole, come out, and then can’t figure out how to get back in.”
Ling raised an eyebrow. “If your manholes are big enough to let one of these things through, no wonder your sewers are screwed up.”
“Worms can fit through surprisingly small spaces,” Vere insisted. “Although I’ll admit this strains credibility a little.”
Derek snorted. “The fey probably got bored and let them out for kicks. Probably cracked the black water line down there as well.” He indicated the pit of the lecture hall, still filled with sewage.
Vere groaned. “We’re going to need to have that repaired. This entire floor is going to be useless for a month.”
“So,” Derek said, still gripping the man by the arm. “Twenty five times the agreed reward seems fair?”
Our employer looked at him, then glanced at the dead crawlers again.
“Two and a half thousand dollars. Agreed.”
Derek pulled out his phone. “You get all that, MC? Good. Have them take it to my room.” He sighed. I think we all need long showers.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 24)
Flynn Neilson is going to be very important later on, but he’s going to take the sideline for a while. This seemed a good time to introduce him as any.
And as for Akane jumping higher when her power is active, I’m not sure how much sense that makes. However, whenever I thought about her fighting, I could not get it out of my head that she should jump higher at superspeed. So that’s how it works. Basically, she can outrun inertia. Doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way its gonna be.